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The Key to Success

Rabbi Kook has good news. If you are a loser, all is not lost. You too can be a winner. You too can succeed. How? Through t’shuva.
The Key to Success

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As we continue on the t’shuva train toward Yom Kippur, I would like to take this opportunity to bless the readers of the Jewish Press, and my friends the world over, with a year of health, happiness, and success.

While the greatest success a Jew can achieve is to live a Torah life in the Land of Israel, success comes in many shapes and sizes. To make sure that your new year will be blessed with success, here’s a wonderful teaching of Rabbi Kook, condensed from our commentary, “The Art of T’shuva,” which has the power to make everyone a winner.

It is no secret that western society is success oriented. Everyone wants to be a success, whether it be a successful basketball player, a successful lawyer, a successful doctor, a successful housewife… the list goes on and on. Success is championed as one of life’s greatest values. Everyone loves success stories. Everyone envies successful people. From the earliest ages, children are taught to admire success. Parents push their kids to be successful. The drive to succeed is reinforced in schools. The competition is fierce to get into top colleges, because they are seen as the doors to success. Working your way up the ladder of success is the mainstay of capitalism. Accordingly, bookstores are filled with dozens of guides on how to succeed.

Accordingly, the poor soul who does not succeed is a loser. In western society, if you are not a success, you are probably very unhappy. Your self-image is bound to be low. The successful people are the winners, and you are nothing more than a bum.

Rabbi Kook has good news. If you are a loser, all is not lost. You too can be a winner. You too can succeed. How? Through t’shuva.

That’s right. The key to success is t’shuva. For when life is looked at through spiritual glasses, for what it really is, the most important thing is neither money, nor honor, nor power, nor fame. The most important thing is pursuing a life of goodness. True success lies in simply striving to be good. For real achievement is measured by what is important to God, not by what society flaunts. In God’s eyes, a woman can be successful without looking like Barbie. A man can be a success without having five or six credit cards and a six-figure salary. The real man, the real success, is the baal t’shuva, the man of Torah.

Rabbi Kook discusses this startling idea in his writings on ratzon, רצון. The Hebrew word ratzon is usually translated as will, or willpower, but the word has a deep connotation which requires some further explanation. He writes:

The will which is forged by t’shuva is the will which is imbedded in the depths of existence, and not the lesser will that concerns itself with the superficial and external facets of life. This (deeper) will is the most fundamental force in the foundation of life, and this is the genuine character of the soul (Orot HaT’shuva, 9:1. See the “Art of T’shuva,” Ch.12).

This fundamental force is the desire to get closer to God. This is the deepest expression of the will. For instance, the desire to eat ice cream is a relatively superficial desire, an offshoot of the desire to eat. On a deeper level, the desire to eat is an expression of the will to survive. While not every man has a desire to eat ice cream, every man does have a will to survive. This will, the will to live, is a deeper phase of ratzon, and something less dependent upon a man’s free choice. This can be seen in an old, dying person. Though racked with sufferings, he still clutches onto life with his last ounce of strength. Even if he lapses into a coma, the will to live in his soul continues to function.

On an even deeper level, buried in the will to live is man’s deepest, most basic will — the will to get close to God. The will to be connected to God finds expression in the will to do good and in the longing for goodness. Just as G-d is good, we should be good. Just as God is giving, we should be giving. Man is the only creature who possesses a free will. Our task is to align our will with the will of our Creator. For the Jewish people, living a life of goodness means living a life filled with Torah, which is God’s will for the Jews. This is our true happiness, as it says, “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Tehillim, 19:9).

The Torah represents the Divine good, as expressed in a code of behavior on earth. One can readily understand that a person gets closer to God by doing what He ordains. When a man attaches his will to God’s, his will is uplifted toward a higher ideal. He doesn’t merely want to make a good living, come home, open a beer, and watch TV. His life is more idealistically oriented. He tends to think less of himself and he longs to help everyone he can.

In a similar light, sin acts as a barrier between man and his Maker. When a person defies God’s will, he distances himself from God. He falls out of harmony with existence, because all of existence is an expression of God’s will. The sun rises every day just as God has decreed. Rains fall, flowers grow, birds chirp, all in harmony with God’s will. Only man has the freedom to turn his will against God.

If a person’s will to do good slips off the right path, he quickly comes to transgress. Rabbi Kook explains that every sin weakens the will to do good. With a weakened moral desire, a man can fall into the clutches of sin completely.

This detachment from God can only be cured by t’shuva. It is through t’shuva that man recognizes the value of goodness. This recognition strengthens the will to do good. The more a person learns about the goodness of God, and the more he learns Torah, the more he wants to come closer to God.

Concurrently, when he prays to come closer to God, his will for goodness is fortified. Standing before his Maker in prayer, he nullifies his will before God’s will. Attached once again to the Divine “superwill” for the world, he finds the inner resources and power to turn his evil inclination toward the good. In this manner, his sins are transformed into merits. The constant spiritual battle between the evil inclination and the good inclination is a part of the inner fabric of life. As the book “Mesillat Yesharim” makes clear, all of this world is a testing ground. Will a man follow his will to do good, or will he be led astray after sin? The hero, the winner, is the man who clings to God in all of his doings. This is real success. As the Ramchal writes:

The Holy One Blessed Be He has put man in a place where the factors which draw him further from the Blessed One are many. These are the earthy desires which, if he is pulled after them, cause him to be drawn further from and to depart from the true good. It is seen, then, that man is veritably placed in the midst of a raging battle…. If he is valorous, and victorious on all sides, he will be the whole man, who will succeed in uniting with his Creator, and he will leave the corridor to enter the palace, to glow in the light of life. To the extent that he has subdued his evil inclination and his desires, and withdrawn from those factors which draw him further from the good, and exerted himself to become united with it, to that extent he will attain and rejoice in the light of life.

If you look more deeply into the matter, you will see that the world was created for man’s use. In truth, man is the center of a great balance. For if he is pulled after the world and is drawn further from his Creator, he is damaged, and he damages the world with him. And if he rules over himself and unites himself with his Creator, using the world only to aid him in the service of God, then he is uplifted and the world is uplifted with him (“Mesillat Yesharim,” Ch.1).

Success, we see, is achieved in life when one channels his will towards goodness. What makes this simple teaching so startling? Precisely because it stands in conflict with all of modern western culture. Today, who are the “successful people”? The movie stars and rock stars, the millionaires, the famous artists, the political leaders, the sports heroes. These are society’s champions. These are the role models whom young people emulate. They are considered successful because they have successfully pursued and attained prestige, power, money, and fame — values which Judaism places at the negative side of the scale of character traits. Our Sages teach that we should flee from honor and pride. Our prophets tell us that it is not the powerful and egotistical who shall inherit the earth, but the humble and righteous. The Midrash teaches that someone who seeks fame will lose it, and that the pursuit of wealth brings misery in its wake. In other words, chances are that the faces we see on the cover of People Magazine are not the faces which we are going to see in Heaven in the World to Come.

Modern western culture encourages man to channel his will toward the more negative aspects of life. Society’s passions and pulls are so powerful that a person soon loses sight of what’s good, and begins to glorify and worship the bad. The push toward success is so great, everything becomes permissible in the fight to achieve it. Vice becomes an acceptable norm. The will for goodness, man’s most basic desire, is shackled in sin. Only the power of t’shuva can save it.

Rabbi Kook writes:

The constant focus of a person’s thoughts on t’shuva builds a person’s character on a noble foundation. He constantly fills himself with a sensitive spirit, which places him on the spiritual foundation of life and existence.

When t’shuva constantly fills the heart, it reinforces in the person the great value of a spiritual life, and reinforces in him the great foundation that a good will is everything. All of the talents in the world are merely to implement the person’s will to do good, which becomes stamped into his being through the light of constant t’shuva. A great influx of God’s spirit falls constantly over him, and a holy will increases in him, far surpassing the aspirations of ordinary men. He comes to recognize the positive value of true success — the will for goodness, which is solely dependent on the person himself, and not on any external condition (Orot HaT’shuva, 9:1).

Thus it is t’shuva which strengthens a person’s longing for goodness. It is t’shuva which gives him the spiritual light to break free from the darkness of sin. It is t’shuva which revitalizes and restores his good will. When the spiritual world opens before him, he realizes that talents are not ends in themselves, but the means in serving God. One realizes that the goal is not just to be a good singer, but to sing the praises of God. The goal is not just to be a good writer, but to use one’s talent as a writer to bring people closer to their Creator. The greatness of one’s talent is not the measure of success, but rather the direction it takes. Nor is public renown always the yardstick. Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem,” lived a life of one good deed after another, but outside of Israel, he was hardly known at all. Who in God’s eyes do you think was a greater success, Rabbi Aryeh Levin or Elvis Presley, who was known all over the world? The answer is obvious when we judge our lives by Jewish standards, and not by the standards of western culture.

Rabbi Kook teaches that by attaching oneself to God’s will for the world, a person brings his life into harmony with the positive flow of existence. In the process, a person’s own willpower is fantastically strengthened, for he has plugged himself into the Source of all sources, the Power of all powers, Will of all wills, King of all kings. People who attain this level possess a superhuman energy and drive. Our forefather, Yaakov, went years with almost no sleep. King David would sleep only a tiny portion of the night. Tzaddikim like Rabbi Aryeh Levin, Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and the Rebbe of Chabad, were known to fill up all of their days, their evenings, and their nights with endless study, teaching, meetings, prayer and good deeds. The person who is strengthened by a holy will, and an influx of God’s spirit, comes to know that the zenith of success is in channeling one’s will toward goodness, and that this, in and of itself, is the highest attainment in life, independent of his status in society, and other external factors such as honor and fame.

“This success is the greatest happiness, greater than all other treasures. Only this success brings joy to the whole world and all of existence. For a good will which is always active in the soul transforms all of life toward goodness” (Ibid).

Thus we learn that the striving to be a good person is the key to success and true happiness — to a happiness centered in God. A happiness which a man acquires, not only in this world, but also in the World to Come, where money, and honor, and fame don’t really matter at all. As the expression goes — you can’t take it with you.

Interestingly, Rabbi Kooks says that when a person’s will is purified through t’shuva, the happiness and goodness he discovers is not limited to himself, but rather, the happiness and goodness released from the bondage of sin fills the whole world. This is because, on the deepest level, the individual’s will for goodness is derived from the universal will for goodness which God has placed in the world. In strengthening his personal longing for goodness, he magnifies the will for good in existence as a whole.

T’shuva elevates a person above all of the baseness which exists in the world, but it does not estrange him from the world. To the contrary, he elevates the world and life with him. The forces which caused him to sin are purified in him. The powerful will which pierces all boundaries and caused him to sin is transformed into a positive force that brings great good and blessing. The nobility of life, stemming from the yearning for the realm of the holy, surrounds the heroes of t’shuva. They are the elite of existence, who call out for its perfection, for the victory over obstacles, for the return to true goodness and joy. They call out for the return to the exalted heights of true freedom, which befit a person who rises heavenward in accordance with his spiritual source and his foundation in God’s image” (Ibid, 12:1)

In setting one’s will on a course of t’shuva, in freeing oneself from the shackles of sin, from false idols, and from the illusions of worldly success, man discovers an incomparable happiness and nobility which extends beyond a person’s own life to elevate all of existence.

May the coming year be filled with true success, for you, and for all of the Nation of Israel!

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About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." For the past several years, he has written a popular and controversial blog at Arutz 7. A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of The Jewish Press


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Tzvi Fishman, author of the Jewish Press blog Felafel on Rye and author of more than a dozen books.
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